The trouble with brain science

To continue the series of being several years late sharing random stuff, I just discovered Gary Marcus’s opinion piece in the NYT The Trouble With Brain Science. It comments on the EU funding the Human Brain Project, a project that wants to model the brain in a complete computer simulation. The main criticism is that this is a lot of money thrown at a project predicated on the dubious idea that the mysteries of the brain will be solved simply by Big Data. Gary Marcus instead emphasises that what’s crucially missing is a theory of the brain; that is, we lack an understanding in how the brain does what people over at cognitive science (linguistics, psychology, etc…) found out the brain does. Or in Marcus’s words:

What we are really looking for is a bridge, some way of connecting two separate scientific languages — those of neuroscience and psychology.


Neuroscience awaits a similar breakthrough. We know that there must be some lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws. We don’t know, for example, whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do.

The problem with both of the big brain projects is that too few of the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent are devoted to spanning this conceptual chasm. […]
[A]s anyone in a field richer in data than theory (like weather forecasting) can tell you, amassing data is only a start.

One of the responses to this has been this blogpost over at Mind Hacks:

psychologist Gary Marcus noted that neuroscience is still awaiting a ‘bridging’ theory that elegantly connects neuroscience with psychology.

This reflects a common belief in cognitive science that there is a ‘missing law’ to be discovered that will tell us how mind and brain are linked – but it is quite possible there just isn’t one to be discovered.

He mentions that of course it would be nice if there would be such missing theory that can connect both, ”but it is equally as likely that the connection between mind and brain is more like the relationship between molecular interactions and the weather.”, making it possible to end up with ”what Kenneth Kendler calls ‘patchy reductionism’ – making pragmatic links between mind and brain where possible using a variety of theories and descriptions”.


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